Fr. M C George Menamparampil speaks of the work of Salesian educators to save the children from the street, from child labor, from child marriages. Past pupils of Don Bosco schools include four federal ministers of the Hindu nationalist government. "Without our help, poor and tribal pupils would never have become what they are today". Their mission has one goal: "To be messengers of God's mercy."
Rome (AsiaNews) - More than 400 institutions including schools, universities, vocational and technical training colleges; 196 thousand students taken off the streets and educated to work in the last three years, 78% of whom are now in a stable job; hundreds of girls rescued from early marriages and a destiny of domestic slavery; four ministers of the federal government and the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha (lower house) are among those who have been educated in the schools of Don Bosco.
These are just some of the results achieved by the educational work of the Salesians, revealed to AsiaNews by Fr. M C George Menamparampil, national Don Bosco coordinator in India. He was interviewed on the sidelines of the symposium "Voices of Faith" organized by the Fidel Götz Foundation with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Vatican, on the occasion of International Women's Day.
The priest speaks of the importance of Catholic education in India, focusing in particular on the poor and tribal children: "without us they would never have a chance to improve their lives". Regarding the Hindu radicals who accuse the Christian community of forced conversion with the promise of money and other assets, Fr. Menamparampil responds: "We are not interested in conversions bought for a packet of rice. Our job is to spread the message of Christ, we are instruments of the mercy of God. Our sole purpose is to educate human beings".
The priest was born in Kerala, but in the last 48 years has dedicated his life to the service of the disadvantaged of the tribal communities in the northeastern part of the country. Fr. George has worked for seven years in the national leadership of the institutions managed by priests and nuns of Don Bosco. The school network has been present in India since 1996 and includes more than 400 schools throughout the country, mostly concentrated in poor and rural areas.
The Don Bosco mission is operative in 87 cities in India and one in Calcutta, operators run 29 centers, 25 for males and four for females. "The centers – he continues - welcome boys aged 16 to 18 who have not had an education and now are considered too 'old' for academic education. Instead we give them professional training of three to six months, according to their aptitudes. After the course we provide job interviews with companies for them. Over the past three years we have trained 196 thousand young people with this method. We welcomed them when they were below the poverty line and now 78% of them have found a job".
This program is called "Capacity building" and is co-funded by the Ministry for Rural Development. It is based on a double partnership: "On the one hand the agreements with the government and the other with the sectors that can absorb this labor force, such as technical institutes or companies".
Next to the important work with women and young people, says Fr. Menamparampil, "the biggest part and priority of missionary service is for the poor. The target group of our work are the street children and child laborers. They often drop out of school to help families submerged in debt with the banks. " When an individual applies for a loan, but then fails to return it, he explains, "the interests increase and banks seize all their goods. At that point all the family can do is send even children to the fields. It is illegal, but it happens".
This is what happened with P. A. Sangma, former president of the Lok Sabha (the lower house), who died last week: "He came from a poor tribal family. His father sent him to tend the buffalo. But a priest convinced him to allow his son to study”. The boy received an education in Salesian schools, completely free of charge, and asa a result he made a career for himself, "because he was smart and proved his capabilities. His case, and many others like him, is what gives meaning to our lives, because without our help he would never have had the opportunity to change his destiny already marked by poverty ".
"This is what we do – he continues - applying the principle of education of Don Bosco: We gather up poor children, recognize their abilities and channel them in a proper training program. In this way we can make a difference to their lives. " "Last year eight children taken off the streets graduated from university," he says proudly.
Fr. Menamparampil also reports that schools of Don Bosco have trained hundreds of engineers, doctors, actors and politicians over the years, including four federal ministers of the current government of the Hindu nationalist party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party): Smriti Zubin Irani, Minister for human resource Development; Piyush Goyal, Minister for Energy, coal and renewable sources; Sarbananda Sonowal, Minister for Youth and Sport; Babul Supriyo, Minister for Urban Development, Housing and poverty reduction.
Fr. Menamparampil emphasizes that in general, the Don Bosco school network "enjoys good support from the community in which it resides. Indeed, in some areas of India 98-99% of classes consists of pupils of Hindu and Muslim faith. Christians are very few and the young people all live together in harmony. All institutions have a place dedicated to the reading of the Koran, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, students can read what they want without distinction".
India is a predominantly Hindu country, he concludes, "and in many states conversions are prohibited. Forced or coerced conversions are illegal. A sincere conversion of an adult is quite different". To those who accuse Christians of practicing forced conversions, the priest responds with his own experience: "A few years ago a man came to me, representing 16 families who wanted to convert. The man placed a condition for the conversion: I had to give them rice. I told him: 'You are hungry people, I offer the rice willingly, but I do not want to see you for at least two years'. My religion is not for barter. Our work, sacrifice, service, reflects the love that God has given us. We serve the poor, children, the disadvantaged, as a form of devotion to the Lord. We tell them that there is hope, because they may be abandoned by the family, by society, by the state, but they will never be abandoned by God. Through our service, we are the example of God's mercy".